Giving Back

Westfield Student with Rare Brain Cancer Goes to Prom with Help from Community

Maddie Sanford poses for prom pictures outside her home, opting to leave her surgery scars uncovered and instead to highlight with blue body glitter to match her dress. Credits: Alexandra Sanford
Westfield High School Principal Dr. Nelson awards Maddie with her National Honor Society certificate in her home. Maddie was unable to attend the formal induction ceremony due to her illness. Credits: Alexandra Sanford
Maddie Sanford (in blue and white floral print) and friends before prom. Credits: Alexandra Sanford
Lord & Taylor Estee Lauder make up artist Jen Blair volunteered to do Maddie's make up for her prom Credits: Alexandra Sanford
Jen Lane, Westfield's Lord & Taylor Administrator and Eventing Coordinator, provided Maddie with an in-home dress shopping experience for her prom. Credits: Alexandra Sanford

WESTFIELD, NJ – Westfield High School senior Maddie Sanford had hoped to participate in all of this year’s school activities, said her mother, Alexandra Sanford. But because of a rare brain cancer, she’s had to miss a lot.

“Every single thing she’s wanted to go to this year, there has been a reason she has had to miss it,” said Sanford. This included Westfield High School’s homecoming, snowball and, most recently, the induction ceremony for the National Honor Society.

The summer before her junior year at Westfield High School, Maddie stood up from her dinner table and got sick. According to her mother, she constantly had stomach aches and was always missing school.

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Many of the doctors that Maddie saw said she was likely nervous about the upcoming year and her rigorous course load. One doctor even suggested sipping chamomile tea.

“She was sick for a whole year,” said Sanford, who eventually pulled her daughter out of Westfield High School to attend a flex school in Berkeley Heights.   

Maddie was diagnosed with POTS, a condition that affects blood flow and can cause nausea, dizziness and fainting.

“We thought, ‘Okay, well you’re just going to be sick with this thing for the rest of your life,’ but we were managing the symptoms,” said Sanford.

Maddie was well enough to spend the summer in Vermont where she was working at a summer camp. She was excited for her senior year where she was enrolled in AP Government, AP Latin and looked forward to becoming a singer.

But while many of the symptoms were well managed with medication, Maddie noticed that her right thumb was constantly going numb and that her lips would often lose sensation.

Maddie saw a neurologist and on her 17th birthday, Sept. 29, 2017, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

“What it looked like on the scans, they were certain it was going to be benign,” said her mom. “They weren’t even certain that surgery had to be done right away. We pushed it off until late October.”

But on the morning of the surgery, while Sanford was waiting for her daughter in the waiting room of the hospital, doctors had their doubts.

“They said they weren’t sure it was benign after all. They said they think it might not be and they think it might be cancer,” she said.

While surgeons were able to remove the cancer during Maddie’s nine-hour surgery, doctors confirmed that the tumor was a very rare type of brain tumor called pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma (PXA). In Maddie’s case, it is malignant.

After surgery, Maddie endured 33 days of radiation.

“It was just a lot. She didn’t really have the stamina,” said Sanford. “The doctors didn’t think she should be in school.”

Sanford recalls putting a post in the Westfield, NJ Facebook group* asking for recommendations on where she might find a lifelike stuffed animal for her daughter after the radiation had caused her hair to fall out.

“I wanted to do something that made her feel really happy and special. I just asked for recommendations,” said Sanford.

She was shocked by the outpouring of support and by the number of Westfield families who wanted to contribute.

“So many people brought stuffed animals to her. It wasn’t at all what I was meaning to happen,” she said. “It made me get connected with people in town and these connections have been so amazing.”

Maddie continued to struggle towards the end of her treatment plan and the doctors were concerned. She was still not feeling well and even suffered a seizure. By now, she should have been feeling better, Sanford said.

In March, another scan of Maddie’s head revealed that the tumor had already grown back and that she would need to undergo a second surgery.

“They couldn’t get it all out because now it’s growing into regions of the brain that are too important,” said Sanford. “They got as much as they could and now it is on to targeted gene therapy.”

For most of April and into May, Maddie was in the hospital. And while friends offered to celebrate prom in the hospital room, Sanford hoped that she would be well enough for the real event.

“Maddie couldn’t shop for a dress the usual way. I knew we couldn’t do that,” said her mom. “I wanted to make it as easy as possible but still wanted to get her a real prom dress.”

Sanford planned to hire a personal shopper at Lord & Taylor figuring that they could bring the dresses into the dressing room and help Maddie try them on.

But administrator and eventing coordinator of Westfield’s Lord & Taylor, Jen Lane, had another idea in mind.

“She had a carload of dressed. It was so so fun,” said Sanford, who said that Lane came to her home for a personal dress shopping experience.

When it came time to pay for the dress, Maddie’s grandmother tried to pick up the tab but Lane said that the department store employees at the Westfield location had already decided to pay for the dress along with a purse and professional make up application by Estee Lauder representative, Jen Blair.

And for all of the other prom expenses and details members of the Westfield community stepped up to round out Maddie’s prom experience.

Ariel Amster, a friend that Alexandra had connected with on the Westfield, NJ group donated flowers. Fellow Westfield High School student named Layla gave Maddie a gift certificate for her nails. Family friend Heather Hays provided appetizers and party refreshments during pre-prom photos. And Grandma, who couldn’t pay for the dress, decided to pay for the limo instead.

“There have been just things that have gone on in our town that give you so much more faith in humanity,” said Sanford. “Its been just incredible. And to see how many people who have commented and liked on Facebook … it’s just like ‘wow.’”

*The Westfield, NJ Facebook group was created by and is administrated partly by TAPinto Westfield owner and editor Jackie Lieberman. The group is unaffiliated with TAPinto.

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